Leadership ain’t easy. Leadership is a responsibility to others and to lead is a position of tremendous pressure and criticism. An organization rises and falls on the shoulders of its leaders, and leaders face the challenge of inspiring others and developing future trailblazers, innovators and achievers.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) is one of the largest prison systems in the free world. Working his way up through the ranks from a corrections officer to assistant warden to senior warden to director of the TDCJ’s Correctional Institutions Division, Doug Dretke learned valuable lessons in what makes a strong leader and, in turn, a strong organization.
Dretke, who grew up overseas as the son of missionaries, is now the executive director of the internationally renowned Correctional Management Institute of Texas at the George J. Beto Criminal Justice Center at Sam Houston State University. He shared the leadership lessons he’s learned during his career with county officials participating in TAC’s Executive Leadership Class.
1. Leaders Serve.
Leadership isn’t about the leader, Dretke said, but about the people being led, from the newest staffers to the mid-managers to the highest level supervisors. Organizations need leaders who serve those they are leading. “People in leadership really influence other people,” he said. “There is a 100 percent chance you can be a role model, a 100 percent chance you can influence someone else’s performance, that you can affect what someone else thinks, says and does,” he said, adding that, as a leader, he always made a point of asking himself what he could do for others and what difference he wanted to make in other’s lives. “Leaders who see their role as serving others have the most lasting legacies.”
2. Leaders are watched.
Dretke recalled one conversation he had after promoting someone to assistant warden. The two were having a conversation about favorite foods and Dretke mentioned that he’d grown up in West Africa. The assistant warden told him that he knew. “Then he goes, ‘We’ve been watching you throughout your career,’” Dretke recalled. “He said the word ‘we.’ And he said, ‘And we are very proud of you.’ And I thanked him and we went about our conversation and then he left, but I started thinking about it and it puzzled me.” But he later realized that the assistant warden had been identifying with him as a foreigner and immigrant and that the “we” that he had been referring to were the recent immigrants who worked in the same TCDJ facility as the assistant warden. “They identified with me,” Dretke said. “It was this kind of ah-ha moment that was actually frightening to me. In your leadership position, everybody is watching you. You often don’t even know who all is watching you and how people are identifying with you.”
3. Leaders make others significant.
The driving force behind human behavior is acceptance. People want to be accepted, understood, appreciated and recognized and will perform better if they feel those things. Dretke recalled one corrections officer who had been known as a negative employee, someone with a generally bad attitude who often pushed back against her superiors. But when Dretke got a call one day from a university wanting corrections officers to participate in a special survey about prison conditions and work environments, Dretke selected that employee to participate despite apprehension from her supervisors. After being selected, the corrections officer felt more appreciated. “She was shocked when I called her up to be part of the team,” Dretke said, adding that, at the time, he hadn’t realized how positive of an experience it would be. “She was a different officer after that. She was a completely different person. When I left two years later, she was one of our top performers. And I didn’t intend to be that strategic. But it was the first time she felt that we really cared who she was and what she had to say. It just taught me this incredible lesson about reaching out.”
4. Failures of staff often result from failures of leadership.
Dretke recalled a corrections officer from many years ago who had shown promise as a future leader and was promoted to sergeant. “We’d pin the chevrons on them, congratulate them and send them back to the back of the building now a supervisor. Five minutes ago, they were working with their peers and now they are supervising them,” Dretke said. “I was really excited about this sergeant. He had showed so much potential. … Three months later, I fired him.” An inmate had gotten into an altercation with a corrections officer, and the sergeant had slapped the inmate in retaliation and hadn’t taken responsibility for his offense. At first, Dretke didn’t understand how someone with so much promise could fail in such a short amount of time. “As I thought about that, I realized in his mind, he was doing something we would all agree with. He was taking care of his staff. He was showing the offender ‘you’re not going to hurt my officer.’ So the problem was, we hadn’t ever taught him how to handle situations like that that are very difficult,” Dretke said, adding that he felt he had failed to communicate his expectations, something that is a constant challenge. “That finger that we had pointed at him, all of a sudden, it was pointed dead at us.”
5. People will work harder for liked leadership.
“Spend a second thinking about the leaders in your life that you’ve looked up to, that mentored you,” Dretke said. “Did you like them? Absolutely, you liked them. Now, they may not have been your buddy, you may not have ever gone out to eat with them, but you respected them, you saw how they treated people, how they treated you. … When you think of the word ‘liked,’ you liked them.” The best leaders, and the best-liked leaders, are humble, he said. “Humbleness should drive what we do.” Leaders that are overly harsh on staff or who demand certain types of respect are often insecure in their positions. “They just have an insecure weakness about who they are,” he said. “I loved my assistants because… they just constantly were bringing me back down to reality.”
6. Leaders embrace dissenting opinions.
Throughout his career, Dretke had several opportunities to see United States military leaders in action. One of the most pressing lessons he learned during those interactions is that the military generals insisted on hearing dissenting opinions. “The colonel in the back did not have a problem with raising his hand and saying, ‘General, I don’t think that’s right. I think we need to think about this or look at this,’” Dretke said. “I heard over and over again that if I have just a bunch of people that work for me, I make pretty poor decisions.” If team members feel their opinion has been heard and valued, they are more likely to be on board with the final decision. “You’re still the boss, you get to make the decision, but the strength of that decision is very much based on how much you are listening.”
7. Leaders value diversity of all types.
Strong organizations value traditional diversity — having an organization that represents the community it serves and is inclusive to all ethnicities. But diversity also means that teams include different personality types — thinkers, sensors, introverts, extroverts. It’s important that a team includes members with different life experiences, perspectives and ways of thinking. The more diverse the team, the more powerful the collaboration, Dretke said. “We tend to be drawn to people who are like us, good or bad, right or wrong, people who do the same thing,” he said, adding that it’s easy to relate to people who share something in common. But a leader will take the time to relate to those with whom they don’t appear to have anything in common. “That’s hard work.”
8. Leaders communicate the big picture.
The more a leader can and does communicate big-picture ideas to staff, the more likely staff will follow. “I grew up in a big organization where a lot of people felt holding on to information was power,” Dretke said, adding that is not the case. “A lot of times you’ll get these staff who are a little relunctant to do something or who are pushing back. You need to explain why you’re doing something. Then they’ll go, ‘well, that makes sense.’” All staffs have valid questions about their leaders that should be answered: Who are you? Why you? What qualifies you to be in this leadership role? What do you want? Where are you taking us and how are we going to get there? But communicating what and why isn’t enough. Communication style is also important. “Strength doesn’t come in showing anger and hollering and things like that. It comes from this quiet, strong ability to tell others, ‘this is what I expect, this is what did not go right and I do not expect to see this again.’”
9. Strong leaders walk among the people.
A lot of leaders pride themselves on having open door policies. If their door is never closed, they theorize, staff will feel welcome to come to them. But that’s not really the case, Dretke said. “How easy is it for staff to walk into the exec’s office? It’s not that easy,” he said. “Staff will rarely come to you. But if you go to their space, their place, it’s an amazing thing how much they’ll talk about, how they’ll open up, how they’ll share things with you.” He recalled one warden he learned from who walked his facility every single day. “If we weren’t walking and talking, he’d find out about an issue before we did, and my gosh, that was a bad day,” he said. “It put this incredible pressure on us, which was positive pressure, to be out and about, solving issues, handling issues, so that if he heard about something, we’d already told him about it or we’d have already resolved it.”
10. Leaders NEED courage.
Having policies and procedures is important for every leader, and leaders who stick to the rules generally lead by example. But leadership is not black and white, Dretke said. Many problems pop up in gray areas. “Leaders who hide behind the black and white policy and procedures refuse to make decisions. Or it’s always ‘no.’ ‘No, we can’t do that,’ and they’ll find the policy or procedure that says that. My feeling always about that kind of leadership is that that’s the weakest kind of leadership,” Dretke said. “They were afraid. They didn’t have the courage to make decisions.” Leaders who hide behind policies are often leaders who wind up supporting the status quo. “Leadership absolutely is not there to support the status quo,” he said. “Leaders are there to think about what are the things we can do better. But it takes courage to take initiative, because what happens to some of our initatives? They don’t work.” ✯